Editor’s Note: Community is everything to us at Pixlee. We’re thrilled to welcome our community of #PixleePros in our latest series “Send Tweet: Insights From the #PixleePros.” This week I had the pleasure of speaking with Chi Thukral of Yanko Design!
Haley Fraser: I’d love to start with an introduction to who you are, what you've been up to, and how you got to where you are?
Chi Thukral: I did my undergrad in India, and we only have three years of school there. I got my degree in Mass Communication & Media. When I wasn’t in classes, I worked full time with filmmakers all across the country. I would be traveling and learning how to make films because my real passion has always been making films and making content. So, I did go to school, but not for filmmaking. I learned a lot about filmmaking on the job. At the end of my undergrad, I got into a Paris film school with a full scholarship. But my parents did not let me go. At the time, I was 19, and I had not grasped the reality of being a filmmaker: having to line up projects, not having a stable flow of income, not seeing people you cared about for long periods of time. So I started to research what schools I could apply to. I knew I liked advertising and marketing, and I could still be creative and work with filmmakers. I found a course at Emerson College called Global Marketing Communications & Advertising and decided to apply. A couple months later, I got an email saying that I got in - here’s the fun part, my parents had NO IDEA but with my persuasive PPT presentation I managed to convince them to help me take out a loan to study abroad.So that's how I ended up in grad school in Boston. From there, I was recruited by an experiential marketing company in LA where I was able to work with set directors, art directors, and filmmakers on large scale marketing campaigns. I spent two years in LA and had a blast, but I wanted cold weather, so I decided to move to New York. I requested my friends to let me stay on their couches until I finally found an agency I liked. The agency was small to medium in size but I loved what they did and I was curious what it would be like to work at a full digital agency because it would be a stark contrast to my experience in LA. I took the job and I was there for a full year. Unfortunately, my visa situation was complicated because I was an expat and the renewal process was very hard. Instead of renewing my visa, they let me go to India and work with their team on a global project so that once the situation died down in the US, I could come back. That was the whole plan. I came to India in 2019, worked over here for six months with their Indian branch until I finished my project. About the time the project ended, the pandemic hit. That's when I realized that I wasn’t going back to the US for a while...I had to find something new. Yanko Design was something that I knew about through a family friend. I approached the CEO, and I wrote emails to him with plans until he finally gave in and was like, "Fine, fine, we'll bring you on board." I didn't just badger him, I gave him ideas as to what I could do to make things better, how I would do things differently, and what new ventures I wanted to start. One of them was their sustainability wing. So Yanko Design is where I'm currently at. They are a global design publication company so they cover everything from architecture to tech. It's a very big platform for designers, especially student designers. I introduced the sustainable vertical there because sustainable designs are scattered and you have to source them from so many random places - my goal was to create the same place for sustainability as we had created for product design, so designers could seek out sustainable design inspiration, resources and facts more easily.Every day, my mornings consist of picking a sustainable design that makes sense and that I can do research on, and put it out in the magazine. The remaining half of my day goes into working on Instagram. We now have almost 1.1 million followers on our Instagram page, which is great because when I started a year ago, we were at 500k. I don't even know how I made that jump, but it was mostly from keeping my head down and making sure that I found things that people liked. And I'm very bullish on data analytics, I would go in and see what was working and what was not working and change my strategies based on it. I also rely heavily on audience feedback so when you couple that with data it's a very clear picture. We doubled our audience in a year and I am glad that I was able to bring the love for design to more non-design folk like myself. I'm still writing for their sustainable column, taking care of Instagram and overseeing all the content marketing. That is where I am right now.
Haley Fraser: I love that. I actually think it's really fascinating because everyone comes from a different place. I rarely meet somebody who went to school specifically for marketing. It's interesting to have the media background and then take that and scale it out in a marketing context.
Chi Thukral: Looking back, I’m glad my parents forced me to think hard about film school because I think the pressure of lining up projects would probably keep me anxious and you can't be your most creative self in a state of anxiety. I'm glad that I took up marketing because I do get to make a lot of content, I get to work with so many content creators, and I still get to be creative. I don't have to worry about paychecks every month, which most filmmakers do - I say this from years of experience as one myself. In India, filmmaking is not a very big industry, and I never had contacts or connections in the film world in India, let alone in the US. So it was obviously going to be very hard for me to break through. The reason I wanted to be a filmmaker is because it brought me joy. But I'm still making content every single day and I'm so fulfilled!
Haley Fraser: I love that you're talking a little bit about growing this community. How does community impact your life as a marketer?
Chi Thukral: It’s pretty much the center of everything I do. Even though I'm not a community marketer or manager, one of my biggest responsibilities is to curate content for the community so I can’t ignore it. I'm constantly interacting with this community of designers from around the world. Some of them are not fluent in English, so you have to be very patient, understanding, and you also need to be empathetic. Like, this person is trying to explain what they've made, and they can't, so I have to piece it together and make sure that they still feel confident. A lot of these designers are not marketing friendly, they're not social media friendly, and they feel that putting their work out means opening it up for criticism. Part of my day is just talking to them, making sure that they feel comfortable, and that they know I have their back. So technically, yes, I am a social media manager for the magazine, but I am fully immersed in the community. One turning point for our community was in December of 2020 when we posted about how there are more female design students in the industry but there are not enough female designers in the workforce. We were confused as to why it wasn’t translating. That post sparked a conversation about gender inequality, and the disparity in hiring and things like that. I posted it, went about my day, and that night, I got a text from my CEO saying "Have you seen the post?" At this point, as a social media manager, I am hyperventilating, like, something's clearly not okay. So I went to check and there is a heated debate going on between men and women across the world. There were thousands of comments on this post. At that point, I was like, "Do I enter this conversation as the publication? Or do I just let people talk within themselves?" Because as a publication, yes, you have to be unbiased. But at the same time, if I was not backing up the community, then I would look like a fraud. I would look like someone who was only doing this to get the numbers up on their Instagram. My CEO gave me the green light to go ahead and destroy any misogynistic men that I saw, as the publication. So I'm like, "Okay, that's what I have to do." For eight hours straight, I was in the comments section, clapping back. Within reason, I was putting people in their place. If they were going after people who were making valid points, supporting their points with case studies with numbers, I was backing them up as the publication. And that was a turning point for our community where they realized, "Okay, this is not just another page posting great designs, they really do care about what is happening and they want to make a difference."I never would have imagined but that post led to a lot of design studios creating a pledge to hire more female designers and other designers formed an allyship program for female designers. We were able to have a more open conversation with those we feature and then we also made a separate section on our website solely for female designers so that design studios who don't know where to look to hire more female talent can simply come to our page and look at their work. That was a big, big turning point for the community. They finally saw that there's a real person behind the account and they were able to trust me more. My CEO then pushed me to be more out there on the account, doing more videos where I'm speaking to the community or doing more lives. It was outside of my comfort zone because I’m used to being behind the camera, so it was very difficult for me. But it was so much fun because I was connecting with people one on one. That's when our community really skyrocketed. There were times where people would still hate on us and I was able to reason things out with them and say that it is okay to criticize a design but unnecessary trolling will not be tolerated on this page because these are creative people putting their heart and soul into their work. If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all. That is something that I've been trying to build on. I am always engaging with them - I like all their comments, I reply to pretty much every DM. It's crazy but it's something that I really do enjoy, because as a marketer, I think about how nice it is to have reciprocation from a brand that you use and interact with. I just try to give back because it’s fun and it’s something that I genuinely enjoy. A lot of people say it’s easy with 1 million followers, but that’s not where I started. I started with half of that. Also, it's never about the number of people. Even if it’s 10 people, are you connecting with those 10 people? It always comes down to that.
Haley Fraser: I’m glad there's people out there like you making the internet a better place for women! I don’t know if you’re familiar with this, but the Havas Meaningful Brand Survey tries to figure out what brands are meaningful to customers and why. One thing that they said is that people don’t trust brands. But one thing that apparently makes people trust brands and different entities online is having them actually stand for something and backing it up.
Chi Thukral: Similarly, for BLM, when the whole incident happened - none of us are part of that community, but our hearts really broke when we saw that. As a social media manager, I do want our brand to be more global and more inclusive. So even though this was not directly related to design, and we're not a big brand in the USA, it was an opportunity for me to show that, because we have designers from all over the world, we do support the cause. I wrote a statement, and I’m no PR expert so it came straight from the heart. I asked the CEO if he could donate to a cause and he said ‘Of course.’ And we posted a receipt of the donation because this is something we believe in and we always want to back it up. This is not something we’re doing because we want to look good online. That is never the case. So that is something that I learned - whatever you believe in, you always have to back it up, otherwise it doesn't make a difference in anyone's lives.
Haley Fraser: Definitely. This is kind of a fun one but if Twitter disappeared tomorrow, what would that mean for you?
Chi Thukral: Great question, because I wasn't even on Twitter seven months ago. I've actually lived without Twitter all my life so if Twitter disappeared, I would just go back to living like I was seven months ago. I did connect with everyone that I care about from my Twitter on my Instagram so if it disappeared, it’s fine because I will continue to love them on other platforms!
Haley Fraser: I love that the community is multi threaded. To that point, it sounds like not only are you building relationships but you’ve really grown this community from the ground up. What’s the best advice you’d give to somebody trying to do the same thing?
Chi Thukral: I would just say keep at it! You are not supposed to look at the numbers every day. I didn't. When I was growing Yanko Design’s Instagram, I was never looking at the numbers. So when it actually hit 1 million, it took me a whole day to digest that. I was not tracking the follower number, I was just down doing my work and it came on its own. I started Twitter because there were so many memes on Instagram that come from Twitter. I thought that if I stayed on Twitter, I would see them first. And I always tell anybody who comes in my DMs and ask how I grew my following so quickly. I’m like, ‘You tell me. I’m tweeting the same way that I tweeted when I had zero followers.’ What I’ve always done and still do is engage with every single person. It’s getting a lot harder as more people start to follow, but I set aside time to go on my computer and open every tweet I’ve ever done and go down all of them. It’s not convenient or efficient, but I do see people like David Griner and Christina Garnett who have much larger followings than I do still go down and like everyone’s tweets and reply to people, even though it takes time. I think if you really want to build a community or a following, that is how to start - genuine interactions. Everyone loves to feel special. If you're going to make people feel special, they'll stick with you. I've never come from a place of like, "I am an expert, and therefore you should follow me." I think most people that follow me say that they feel like I've been friends with them for years. And that's the second thing, you just have to stay grounded. I don't care if you're a CEO, CMO, or VP. Stay grounded. You are a person on a social platform, be social! If people are following you, appreciate them. You have to be grateful that people are taking time out of their day to interact with you. Leaders do that, and they are the ones that actually have the most loyal followers. I learned by watching what people that I look up to do and trying to do the same thing, especially on Twitter. It’s very hard to go through that many likes or DMs but I am weird in that way - I want to get back to everyone. So I do. And finally, just be yourself. Don’t be a carefully crafted persona that feels like a chat bot, be raw and real so people can relate to you.
Haley Fraser: I love that. What I’m hearing a lot of is that being authentic and being true to the people that are engaging with you goes a long way. On the same vein, looking ahead 5 to 10 years, what do you think is going to be the most important skill for marketers to have?
Chi Thukral: I think it has to be being vulnerable and being authentic. A lot of times on my feed, I always see the successes, which is great. I love rooting for people and sharing your successes is important but very few people share their failures. Very few people are open about what went wrong, what didn’t work for them, or even their mental health. I feel like as a marketer, you’re someone that is connecting the brand with the people, and you have to add emotional quality to a brand but you can only do that if you are emotionally available as a person. If you’re someone that is faking it while trying to build a personality for a brand, it’s going to show very quickly. Being vulnerable is such a huge strength because it lets you be empathetic and authentic because it is so much easier to feel what you’re feeling. That is something that I would love to see more people do - talking about things that didn’t work well. It’s just an exercise to be more relatable.I also think listening is so important. Marketers tend to get wrapped up in numbers, how well things are going, how much revenue is coming in, and how cool their ad campaign looks. I don’t see enough brands engaging with their comments. I want brands to think of their companies as people. If you want to be friends with that brand as if it was a person, then you’re doing great. It means that you’ve been able to transfer your emotional openness and humaneness to a brand, which I think is a sign of a great marketer.
Haley Fraser: Definitely. I love that. I know that this is a little bit of a tricky question to answer right now because of the state of the world, but what’s next for you? I intentionally leave it open ended just because I'm always curious to see where people take it.
Chi Thukral: I love that question. Because everybody's stuck right now, what's next is what keeps you excited every day. I'm actually moving to Toronto. I decided not to go back to the US. It was a hard decision and it purely comes from a place of, I was a foreigner for five years and I'm ready to not feel like a foreigner. I'm ready to not be at the mercy of a government anymore. And I'm a Canadian resident. So I have decided to take advantage of that and move to Toronto. I've never been to Toronto, or to Canada in general, so that's going to be very interesting. Anytime I tell someone that they're like, "You're crazy, you're going to a place you don’t know?" But at the same time, I moved to Boston, New York and LA and I had never been to any of those places before. It’s something very exciting for me. I decided that I’m going to document the whole thing because people always ask how I do it, so I’m just going to show them. The next thing, once I move to Toronto, is to start my YouTube channel. I just want to document my life and I want to show people that big changes are daunting but doable! It’s not as hard as it seems. It is scary but it’s also so rewarding. The other reason I want to do that is to look back on how life was for me the first year after the pandemic. It’s a passion project. I want to make one video every week for a whole year. If it takes off, great. If it doesn’t, I have a great set of my life episodes to look back on. I’m excited to learn new things and I think it’s going to be a great exercise for me. That is something that I’m very, very excited about.